The Ms. Q&A: Why Carrie Goldberg Takes Trolls to Court

Carrie Goldberg is an attorney who proudly “sues the hell out of tech companies, schools and powerful sexual predators.”

In her forthcoming book—Nobody’s Victim: Fighting Psychos, Stalkers, Pervs, and Trolls—Goldberg charts her own journey from survivor to pioneering advocate against revenge porn, digital stalking and online harassment. Her groundbreaking legal work against this endless variety of online abuse has stopped abusers in their tracks and won back privacy for her clients.

Nobody’s Victim provides an in-depth glimpse into the world of digital violence and harassment. Golberg describes the many forms of online abuse: sextortion, doxxing, impersonation, stalking, swatting and revenge porn. She offers a taxonomy of offenders. And she walks readers through steps they can take themselves when they’re attacks online.

When Goldberg came to the University of Massachusetts Amherst for a talk, I took the opportunity to ask her some questions about her work. She opened up to Ms. about the digital landscape facing women and the solutions that can keep them safer online.

How did you get into this area of law?

In 2013, while I was working at the Vera Institute of Justice supporting holocaust victims, a man with whom I had a short relationship began a campaign of harassment against me. He sent hundreds of text messages and e-mails, attempted to break into my apartment, hacked my work computer and sent emails with naked pics and videos of me saying he’d blind copied judges and colleagues. He said that he was going spend the rest of his life destroying mine, and that there was no hole deep enough for me to climb into to escape it.

I went to the police and to court but was told that I had “a first amendment problem,” that it was this psycho’s constitutional right to terrorize me by distributing private images of me to my family, colleagues and random strangers. I searched for an attorney who understood domestic violence, criminal law and copyright laws and understood the current world of the Internet and social media.

Suffice to say, no such attorney existed. I had no one to turn to. So, I became the lawyer I needed. I set up my firm with $3,000 savings and here we are, five years later, fighting harder than ever.

How does the Internet amplify abuse?

Technology isn’t inherently harmful. The Internet has given us some great things: #MeToo, for example. But it is a force multiplier; it amplifies and perpetuates the harm instigated by abusers. The Internet gives abusers exactly what they need to thrive: anonymity, access and a consequence-free environment. It’s an ideal hunting-ground for stalkers, groomers and sexual predators.

Anonymity is obviously key, enabling abusers to hide in plain sight. They hack, they impersonate, then they slink away quietly having wreaked havoc on their victim’s life and sanity. Abusers can easily access their victims through the Internet because it’s 2019 and whether you’re trying to get a job or talk to your friends, being on the Internet is a necessary function of participating in society. 

Yet, in spite of its ubiquity, police seem to de-prioritize Internet crimes and those that occur on the social media landscape; and frequently disregard the harmful consequences of criminal actions that take place online. Apparently, if someone is sending you emails threatening to kill you, it’s somehow less legitimate than doing so in the form of a mailed letter. This is a viewpoint we need to change.

In fact, we have a case where we are suing the City of Anaheim for its police department doing such a shit job investigating digital evidence. Our client Michelle Hadley was framed by her ex-fiancé Ian Diaz—a deputy U.S. marshal. He doctored evidence and made it look like Michelle was sending men to rape his new wife. His new wife then called in a rape. Michelle was arrested, bail was set for $1 million and she was in prison for 88 days until the prosecutors came to her cell and told her there’d been a horrible mistake. The mistake, though, was the cops being gullible and ignoring obvious information that our client was innocent—such as IP addresses and emails linking the offensive conduct to the couple falsely reporting.

As our client Francesca Rossi, a survivor of extreme stalking by an ex, said: “This is not an ‘Internet crime;” technology may have facilitated it, but it occurred in real life. The police diminished my abuse because my life-threatening attacks came from phones and computers. This is what domestic violence looks like now.” We need to wake up and recognize the modern behaviors of abusers and the weapons that they use.

Trolls, pervs, psychos and assholes rely on the fact that there is little recourse for online crimes thanks to section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), a shamefully archaic law that drastically needs a rethink.

The CDA, passed in 1995, was initially created to protect online bulletin boards from defamation cases. Over the last few decades, the law has become broader and broader until now, when courts interpret CDA §230 as providing blanket immunity for ‘intermediaries’ i.e. Internet platforms that allow abuse to flourish within their communities, claiming they are merely “third parties” who can’t do anything about the harmful activities that occur on their platforms. 

How do you fight against revenge porn or other forms of online abuse? 

My firm and I are starting by stepping up our campaign for reform of the CDA §230—imploring leaders like AOC, Elizabeth Warren, Karen Gillibrand and Beto O’Rourke to make CDA reform an essential element of their 2020 platforms. We very recently saw the law change in New York, where revenge porn is now finally illegal, after years of advocacy, education and campaigning in the face of aggressive lobbying opposition from big-tech. 

Progress is possible. However, distribution of non-consensual sexually explicit images is a form of abuse that takes place on the Internet and predominantly affects women—so it’s difficult to get legislators, law enforcement and politicians to give a shit. 

We are using innovative solutions to fight online abuse. Our case Herrick v. Grinder is a great example of this. Matthew Herrick was stalked and harassed by his ex-boyfriend through the Grindr app. His ex created impersonating profiles to arrange sex dates with over a thousand men who came to Matthew’s home and workplace. Matthew reported it to Grindr over 100 times, got an Order of Protection and made criminal complaints against his ex, but the strangers kept coming. The impersonating profiles told them that Matthew had drugs to share and wanted to role-play rape fantasies. They were incessant, and turned violent.

When our firm served Grindr with a court order demanding they exclude Matthew’s ex from using their product, they said they didn’t have the technology to do so. They own the patent to geo-locating technology—and yet they can’t screen users? We said, “if you can’t control your product, it’s dangerous.” So we, along with co-counsel Tor Ekeland Law, PLLC, have sued Grindr using theories of products liability.  

What advice would you give to someone experiencing online abuse?

Our main advice to victims of revenge porn and online abuse is that this is not your fault, and justice is possible.

The first thing you can do is report the issue to platforms. The more people report, the more pressure is put on social media companies to at least ADMIT there’s a problem. Some platforms, such a Pornhub, have actual forms for reporting revenge porn. Then go to police and school Title IX coordinators.

When that fails, there are multiple routes you can take with the support of an attorney who understands what you’re going through and knows how to make it stop: Cease and Desist letters, removal of content pursuant to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), restraining orders, de-indexing from Google and other search engines, advocacy with law enforcement and lawsuits against the perpetrators. We have resources on our website, which is a great place to start. 

I love your law firm’s motto: “The law firm that turns victims into warriors.”

Clients come to us with a problem and look to us to provide a solution. It’s so satisfying to tell them “I have a plan.”  It’s not a sad job, it’s filled with joy. People often come to us in their darkest hour and we help them find their way back to the light. That’s where our motto comes from.

Not only have our clients been victimized by creeps and trolls, our justice system—in fact, our entire culture—re-victimizes them by disbelieving, demeaning, humiliating and abandoning them. Society seeks to shame victims at every turn, particularly when they dare to speak out against their abusers, because patriarchy profits from our silence. We believe in putting the shame and blame back where it belongs—on the perpetrator—thus freeing-up the victim to get back to the business of her righteous indignation. 

I have seen the alchemy that occurs when a woman decides that enough is enough and sets out on a journey to make the madness stop. By coming to us, she acknowledges that she matters—that she is worthy of support, comradery and a life free from fear, and that she is willing to fight for that. Standing beside her is an honor.

About

Carrie N. Baker is Professor and Director of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. Her 2007 book The Women's Movement Against Sexual Harassment won the National Women’s Studies Association Sara A. Whaley Book Prize. Her second book, Fighting the US Youth Sex Trade: Gender, Race and Politics, tells the story of activism against youth involvement in the sex trade in the United States between 1970 and 2015.